The Decisive Touch
Jacques Tresson, renowned photographer, felt his world ending when he accidently sliced off the tip of his finger.
An afternoon at his summer house on the Greek island of Sifnos, he was struggling to cut a particularly stubborn piece of bone in the lamb shoulder he was preparing for dinner. It may have been a moment of distraction, or one too many glasses of Ouzo, but the butcher knife slipped and removed the top centimeter of his right index finger.
Jacques was in shock, he could only watch the finger tip roll from the edge of the kitchen table and down to the floor. Unfortunately for him, before he could snap out of his state and recover the detached appendage, one of the neighborhood cats, who had been on the porch, watching him with great interest preparing the lamb, ran into the kitchen, picked up the little piece of skin and flesh into its mouth, and promptly disappeared into the nearby olive grove. He ended the day at the local clinic, getting stitches for his finger and slowly coming to terms with the fact that he’d never again be able to practice his craft as before.
In photography circles, Tresson was considered a true pioneer of the art, one of the masters of street photography. His gift was that he could sense and capture the perfect moment when a scene came together. This talent went beyond mere technical details, and beyond composition, too. It was as if he always knew the exact instance when a hidden message, revealed in the position and expressions of the various participants, reached the surface of the photograph and became readable.
One of his most famous photographs, “Slapstick”, was the perfect example of his ability to record brief instances of order in otherwise chaotic scenes. It was taken at a carnival and contained: a costumed clown spinning ceramic plates on top of meter-long sticks rising upwards from his outstretched palms, two carnival goers, a man and a woman with masks covering their eyes, each eating a large ice cream cone, a man with a black and white dog on a leash, various other people in the background, out of focus. As the name of the photograph hinted, the premise was the physical comedy of an encounter he witnessed in the crowd at a carnival: The clown was doing his act, spinning the plates on his sticks, oblivious to the man and woman passing right behind him, eating their ice cream cones. The dog, while passing the clown, noticed something in the distance that made him run forward, past the couple, tugging on his leash. This caused his owner to stumble forward, pushing towards the clown. In turn, the clown recoiled trying to recover the balance of his plates, hitting with his back the woman with the ice cream cone, which was flown out of her hands and landed on the head of the dog, turning him into a miniature black and white unicorn. Tresson noticed the scene when the dog first barked and then masterfully captured the exact moment when the cone landed on the dog’s head, before the people involved realized what was happening, before the scene diverged.
When asked what his secret was, Jacques Tresson credited his right index finger. He argued that the eyes were important for a photographer as they allowed him to notice the scene that was unfolding and to frame it in the most appropriate manner, but they were not enough. Even with the perfect frame before his eyes, the photographer was still too far from the perfect photograph. What was needed to close the remaining distance was to also shoot the photo at the perfect moment in time - responsible for that, Tresson insisted, was the right index finger pressing the plunger of the camera. He went as far as to say he felt his finger had an intelligence of its own, with separate nervous centers, similar to the small brains controlling each one of an octopus’ tentacles. Were he forced to use his main brain while shooting, he would surely miss every opportunity…
A few weeks after his accident, Jacques was in his living room, hunched over the table. In front of him was his camera, with which he had been unable to produce a single photograph of worth since losing the tip of his finger. Spread out around the camera were some new photos, taken after his injury. After his stitches were removed, he had gone out to shoot again, and the first shock was realizing his index finger was now too short to reach the plunger of his camera. The finger and its decisive touch were now most definitely gone, and so was his gift, he felt.
On later outings, he had started using his middle finger to trigger the camera. This put his hand in a slightly awkward position, but he was nonetheless able to take photographs this way. He thought about Django, who had to relearn how to play guitar after burning two of his fingers, and he was determined to at least try to make it work. The problem was that the photos he was taking were not good, not by his previous standards. His new photos were in many ways the opposite of his earlier ones. Where previously his work was focused and precise, his recent attempts were sloppy, his timing was off, he was always lagging behind the key moment when the moving actors in the frame aligned perfectly, as they had always done in his old shots.
He looked at all the new photos, and it was all so depressing: faces out of focus when they should be sharp, people overlapping when they should be separate, or leaving the frame too early, or other unwelcome arrivals showing up to unbalance his compositions. How could he produce good work anymore, when the octopus tentacle brain in his middle finger was obviously lobotomized?
And then, he noticed something in one of the photos that he never saw before in any of his earlier work. It was a simple thing, really: a looseness, a space that existed between the imprecise positioning of the elements in the photo. Before, there was always a perceptible tension tying everything together, as if an invisible wire, always on the brink of snapping, held the entire composition in place. Now, there was breathing room, and the objects and people in the photo looked like they were not where he wanted them to be, but where they needed to be.
One of the most appreciated photographs from the later part of Jacques Tresson’s career, “Drift”, is a simple composition which perfectly shows his mastery of space, both in terms of physical distance between elements of the frame and their progression in time. The photo is taken along the main street of a small town. On the right side, we see the sidewalk and some shop fronts. In the background, slightly out of focus, there is a road sign, marking the limit of the urban area. On the street, to the left of the sidewalk, a car is seen driving away towards this sign. The car is also out of focus, but we can make out the driver’s head through the rear windshield. Back on the sidewalk, in the foreground, a man walking towards the camera is looking back over his right shoulder at the passing car.